#400: The Rynox Mystery (1930) by Philip MacDonald

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Well, who’d’ve thought it, eh?  Philip MacDonald first featured in my reading life in 1-star ignominy, and here he is not just beating all-comers to feature my 400th blog post, but doing so with a book that I — against my better judgement, nature, and previous standards — unabashedly loved with every fibre of my being.  Quite the turnaround, and part of why I persevere with intially-disappointing authors.  Just to clear something up from the off: no, I would not classify this as an impossible crime, despite its inclusion on the Ronald Lacourbe list being what brought it to my attention in the first place, but that’s hardly the first time this has happened….

Deemed ‘An Exercise in Crime’, the book is perhaps best known for telling its story out of sequence: we begin with an epilogue (uh-oh) in which a large sum of cash — £287,499 3s 10½d, some £13 million in today’s market — is delivered to the Naval, Military and Cosmopolitan Assurance Company for reasons no-one there is able to discern.  Come the end of the story, this will indeed make perfect sense; for now, let us go back in time…

…some six or so months, to Francis Xavier ‘F.X.’ Benedik, figurehead and driving influence of Rynox (Unlimited), a company whose precise business dealings are never made clear but do not matter: Rynox, we are left in no doubt, is Going Places, and it is Benedik who has made it happen.  And so his murder at the hands of a disgruntled ex-associate could not come at a more crucial juncture in proceedings — had it been delayed by mere weeks, chances are Rynox would pull through, but his untimely death casts that in doubt.  I could say more, and I originally did, but that’s really all you should know plot-wise going in.

It is the telling of this plot that really makes the book for me.  Evincing MacDonald’s burgeoning film-writing career, it is split into three ‘Reels’, each divided into various Sequences which vary in their modes of telling.  The first Reel is straight prose, detailing the characters in the piece up to Benedik’s murder and capturing characters in sly and trenchant observations such as a theatre clerk nursing a terrible hangover at work, Petronella Rickforth’s engagement to F.X.’s son Tony having “broken, at least temporarily, more hearts than any feminine decision in London for the past six months”, or the following exchange between the president of the company receiving that money and his secretary Miss Winter:

Very untidily heaped in [the room’s] very tidy centre were the sacks.  Miss Winter was bending down, reading the label.

“Got a knife?” asked the President.

Miss Winter had a knife.  Miss Winter always had everything.

It’s on the second Reel that things change: a cavalcade of police reports, crime scene maps, letters, a Coroner’s summation to a jury at the inquest, and internal police memoranda that outline the case, the investigation, and the conclusions, as well as the consequences for Rynox itself.  It sounds gimmicky, and it probably is, but it’s also charming as all hell.  If there’s one flaw, it’s that I’m still not entirely sure what a ‘Big Four beard’ is:

Every police constable carries a Big Four beard in his pocket.  Some police constables, realising this, do nothing about it; others, realising this, do far too much.  Neither class achieve the beard.  Others neither miss opportunities nor try to make opportunities.  They, of course, do not get the beard either, but they do at least go some way towards earning it.

Yup, no idea.

By the time Reel Three rolls around most readers will have figured out what is going on, and to a certain extent the events herein add nothing except a distraction.  It’s not a traditional detective novel at all, but at the same time you will have the perfect opportunity to solve what’s going on.  The slight improvisational structure will not be to the taste of every reader — and I’m more surprised than most to find out how much I enjoyed this aspect of it — but again for me it’s made by the character beats MacDonald effortlessly works in: the entirely irrelevant details of Mrs Pardee and her cloven palate in detailing the unthinking cruelty of immature young men, or the sparklingly beautiful succinctness in his descriptions:

Captain James laughed once more.  A hundred tin cans fell down twenty-five uncarpeted steps.

Alongside this, you also get occasional comments from the author at various points, like a benign Statler and Waldorf tapping you on the shoulder at the theatre and going “Hmm, that seems like it may be relevant, eh?”.  Precisely what these bring to the experience will vary from reader to reader, but I didn’t mind them even if I’ll happily admit that Christianna Brand or John Dickson Carr would have done far more with them.  And I don’t even mind that MacDonald engages in some entirely pointless obfuscation of dates, giving us the likes of Thursday 28th March 193– when there was only one Thurdsay 28th March in that entire decade.

If this sounds like I commend its form over its function that’s sort of intentional, because I don’t want to get too deeply into precisely what happens.  I feel I’ve done a terrible job here, but at the same time I don’t know how else I could possibly write about this.  MacDonald’s structuring is good, the experiment of switching the prologue and epilogue pays out nicely, and his prose is delightfully readable.  In short, despite not being the most convoluted of narratives — and I’m starting to think he didn’t really do convoluted narratives — it still provides easily more than enough of merit and note to engage the interested, among which I happily count myself.  For those of your tiring of the same old Genius Amateurs and obscure clewing and clod-headed policemen, or for those of you who just fancy stretching your experience into something a little wilder, this could not come more highly recommended.

~

If you’re buying this HarperCollins Detective Club reprint — it’s a beautiful and very affordable edition — be aware that the final 30 or so pages are an Anthony Gethryn short story entitled ‘The Wood-for-the-Trees’ (1953) which is not mentioned up front at all.  I was a little disappointed to come to the end of the story so suddenly, anticipating a delightful stroll in over the last stretch, only to hit the Prologue (at the end, of course) and then a throughly forgettable ‘mass murderer’ tale.  The reader is warned!

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See also

Ted Gioia @ Postmodern Mystery: Long before the rise of the postmodern novel, MacDonald anticipated many of its techniques.  He wreaks havoc with conventional narrative structure—opening the book with its epilogue and closing his novel with an account of the story’s beginnings.  He reveals a postmodern zeal for texts within the text, devoting a substantial portion of his story to an array of disparate documents—diary entries, business correspondence, personal letters, police reports, memoranda, etc.—which impart a sense of discontinuity and authorial absence to a novel.   But strangest of all, he reveals a cavalier disregard for all the expectations readers typically bring to detective stories.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: A mystery being simple can be a great flaw in some books, especially if the writer takes 300+ pages to tell it. Thankfully though this is not the case here, as Macdonald writes all of it in a wonderfully entertaining manner and keeps the story short and sweet at 167 pages. Moreover the action of the story keeps your attention as you read to see how things will turn out. The only criticism I would level at the plot is perhaps the lack of surprise in the prologue, which would have had an added twist if it had been written by someone like Anthony Berkeley.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Back Bay Murders from last week for the simple reason that both were published in 1930.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Matriarch/patriarch of family.

18 thoughts on “#400: The Rynox Mystery (1930) by Philip MacDonald

    • I saw there had been a film version, but I’m so bad at sitting down and watching movies these days that I just sort of let it slide. Thanks for the link, I’ll be sure to check out your thoughts — would be interesting to see how these compare, as there’s still quite a lot of scope to diverge from the book and yet remain very faithful to the story. If I could track it down, it might be an interesting exercise at some future point.

  1. The Big Four were the superintendents in charge of the CID (at least in the twenties–I think I heard of a Big Five later). I think the beard is referring to how any constable has the potential to reach this rank (I’m guessing now that the beard is being held as a symbol of maturity or wisdom, but I can’t think of any other examples of this usage).

    • In that context it would make a lot of sense. Thanks for the info — I was looking up historical uses of “beard” and getting nowhere fast (‘Four Tips to Grow a Big Beard’, and the like…)

  2. Good to see you think this is worthwhile and it gets bumped a few places higher in my list. I’ve recently read MacDonald’s Warrant for X and had a good time with it. Very smooth writing and with enough variations from the film version I know to make it more interesting.

    • The more MacDonald plays in the detection pool, the more I like him; he’s a great one — I’m coming to appreciate — for trying to mix up the rules and approaches, rather than trying to, say, ape the Van Dine idiom or gives us another Sherlock Holmes just to make an easy buck.

      I have his novels The Polferry Riddle and Mystery at Friar’s Pardon (as Martin Porlock) on my TBR, and have been recommended The Crime Conductor, The Wraith, Rope to Spare, The Link, and Death on My Left as possibly my sort of thing…and I could not be more excited to track them down.

      • There’s a writing effect in this book — a whirlwind chapter of little snippets of information from many points of view — that reminded me of other MacDonald titles and also hearkened back to Trent’s Last Case. Quite enjoyable, I thought. Rynox is about as slight a story as they come but the liveliness of the narrative is everything for me.
        MacDonald did have his clinkers — I’ve just picked up a copy of Polferry Riddle and it’s just as awful as I remembered. The ending is infuriating.

        • I shall prepare myself for Polferry, then — I was quite excited to get a copy last year, if only because it’s an(other) impossible crime. But, with the excellence of this, I feel he’s earned a bit of a duffer…

  3. Well well, this is very exciting. Look forward to getting my hands on this. Annoyed to find out it’s not an impossible though after all these years. Any reason why it might have been included on the top 100? (Without saying to much I guess)

    • I can see why it might be mistaken for, or perhaps thought of as, an impossible crime because…hmmm, well, you’ll see when you read it. It offers a situation that could be considered impossible from a certain perspective, yet the book never encourages you to consider it from said perspectvie. Any more I’m not comfortable in saying; spoilers, y’know.

      And I can see why it would be included: because it’s bloody fabulous!

  4. Sounds like a great discovery, I’ll have to seek this one out. I’ve actually seen it quite a few times while looking for The Maze, although I’ve ignored it as I haven’t seen a review championing it up until now. It’s always nice to have a new must-read book hit your radar out of the blue. I’m still looking forward to reading The Devil Drives.

    • It is to be hoped that HarperCollins continue with the MacDonald reprints — the estate would seem keen, as we have The Noose, The Rasp, The Maze, Murder Gone Mad, and this one…so it’s not unreasonable to hope for more. Right?!?!?

  5. Thanks for the review, and I was going to comment that I haven’t read any MacDonald – until I realised I have read him as Martin Porlock. How could I forget? 😉

    Porlock seems to be a traditional mystery writer, while some of the MacDonald titles seem slightly more thriller-ish/ adventur-ish? But that may be a misconception I get from the Collins covers.

    Anyway, glad this title worked for you – I got it on your recommendation. 😊

    • I dunno about that MacDonald/Porlock division — I’m pretty sure (I could check, I suppose…) that X vs. Rex was originally published as “by Martin Porlock”, and that’s very much not a novel of detection in any way.

      Okay, I checked, and that’s correct. Though it would seem that he only rolled out the Porlock nom de plume three times: in years when he also published three or more books under his own name. So maybe there’s no more to it than that – he had an idea for a non-Gethryn story, but had already done sufficient under his own name and so put it out under another one.

      Mystery at Friar’s Pardon coming soon…ish 😛

  6. Congratulations on reaching 400 posts and it’s nice to see that the milestone coincided with a good ‘un! I actually have a copy of this somewhere in the wilds of my To Read pile so I will look forward to eventually tracking it back down and reading it for myself. The structure alone intrigues.

    • Many thanks, I’m surprised to find this place as old as it is — I’m loving being involved in this community, and the posts seem to fly by.

      The structure of this was the absolute joy for me, no doubt. I’ve certainly attuned myself to MacDonald’s way of plotting, which helps, and now recognise him as the arch experimenter he so obviously was — if he carries on like this, he may even supplant Anthony Berkeley in that regard, in my opinion. And that’s part of why I’m so keen to keep reading him: it’s like I suddenly understand what he was trying to do, which is a very exciting prospect when it lines up so completely with what I want the books I read to do.

      Anyway, I hope all this praise doesn’t unrealistically raise your own expectations so you end up hating this…always remember that my reactions are much more gut than head!

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